A Lochinvar of St. Cloud
A Lochinvar of St. Cloud
BY ROBERT SHCAKLETON
A FLUTTER of interest stirred St. Cloud. Pierre Petibon had returned! In the tiny gardens, built impossibly behind the houses on the steep hillsides; at the windows overlooking the narrow streets or opening toward distant views of the Seine or the wooded Meudon heights; in the little shops where the people gathered for petty barter and endless gossip—the news was eagerly discussed. The very town itself—the little old town that, from the place to which it has scrambled on the steep hillside, looks out so brightly toward Paris—seemed to have taken on a curious eagerness of aspect; it looked like an old woman with face aglow with communicable news. And was there not news, indeed! Pierre Petibon had returned.
Now, there were many in St. Cloud who knew somewhat of Pierre Petibon and his affairs; there were some who knew a good deal about Pierre and his affairs; but there was only one who knew all about them, and that was Pierre Petibon himself. And, as a matter of fact, there were some things which even he did not understand, but of which he had to gain comprehension through stress of bitter experience.
None but Pierre Petibon himself knew that to him it was as if St. Cloud primarily existed and had primarily been created for himself. This belief, though entirely subconscious and altogether unselfish, was none the less profound. For him the trees in the park of the vanished Château grew thick-massed; for him stately horse-chestnuts lined the endless forest aisles and swept away into duskily remote distances; for him the fountains flowed; for him the water spouted through great carven heads and trickled softly away through long hollows of wrought-out stone; for him was the glory of the countless flowers, growing as only gardeners in palace gardens know how to make them grow—the endless rows of scarlet geraniums flanked by low-set box, the brilliance of the dwarf dahlias, the mingled hues of foxglove and heliotrope and canna and fuchsia, the regal splendor of the roses; for him were the pleached and terraced walks; for him stood the ancient retaining-walls, green with moss and mantled thick with ivy; for him were the views of the winding river, and of Paris, spread out before him, with the towers and domes and pinnacles that gave dream-thoughts to his fancy; for him the parties of Parisians came to the park and made picturesque groups in the glades and paths; for him the quotidian wedding parties came.
In St. Cloud the customary rules. Things are because they have been. They shall be because they are.
St. Cloud is close to Paris. From the park you feel that you could toss a stone there; you know you could easily walk there. But Parisians love to consider it a journey, and to make it a journey, and therefore a journey it is. And for no class of Parisians is it so popular as for the numberless wedding parties who love to drive there, proud and happy, in the afternoons, after the marriage ceremony at the mairie. It is one of the old customs, and therefore it must ever be observed.
Even as a lad Pierre used to watch the wedding parties with delighted curiosity. At times the sloping street beside the Pavillon Bleu and the lesser establishments that shared in the entertainment of the visitors was black with carriages; at times, surreptitiously peeping into one of the wax-floored halls, Pierre's eyes grew big with wonder at seeing half a dozen simultaneous intermingled wedding parties dancing in gayety, the brides and bridesmaids fluttery in filmy white.
Pierre Petibon and Henri Lebrun were, as all St. Cloud knew, close friends from boyhood. Henri's father was rich and grew richer, Pierre's father was never rich and grew poorer, but the friendship of the two lads seemed to become more strong as the difference in their prospects increased. Both went for a time to the same school. Then Pierre was taken by his father to help him in his little bakeshop, and Henri was sent to the military school at St. Cyr.
The time came for Pierre, like other French youths, to take his term of service in the army, and he was at first saddened at having to march away from St. Cloud, whose fascinations had quietly and steadily grown upon him, and then overjoyed at finding that the regiment to which he was attached was ordered to the barracks there. And after a while Henri Lebrun, now a lieutenant, was also assigned to St. Cloud service.
St. Cloud felt a gentle flutter of pride. The two had been its most popular lads; now they were not only the finest-looking young men of the town, but also the two most noticeable among the soldiers at the barracks. Pierre, indeed, was the handsomer of the two, but the trappings and gold of the officer eclipsed the red trousers and blue jacket of the private. And St. Cloud asked, in confabulative prattle on the steep hillsides, or on the bridge flung low over the dark-flowing river, or when service was over at the high-perched church toward which the fortress of Mont Valérien grimly frowns, whether the friendship would now be at an end.
Meanwhile, too, the affairs of Pierre had in another way attracted the attention of the little town. Pierre was in love! The news had gone gossipingly about, with much of pleased and interested comment. It seemed as if whatever Pierre did was sure to come before the public eye—the eye of his little public, the denizens of St. Cloud.
Pierre, one day, was in the park during a few hours' leave. His soldier companions, knowing nothing of his love for St. Cloud, often rallied him on his propensity for solitary walks, and were wont to tell him teasingly that there must be an affair of the heart. And Pierre, half embarrassed, half laughing, but entirely earnest, always gave asseverative denial—always till the day when first he saw Yvonne.
It was a charming August day. The red-trousered soldier watched for a while the changing lights and shadows over the great city so near at hand. In the park the air was still, but over Paris a line of clouds was slowly moving. And now the towers of Notre Dame changed from brightness to a dreary gray; now the great dome over the tomb of Napoleon glowed dazzlingly with gold and now turned a sinister black; and now, as the sun again emerged, a long line of buildings beyond the Bois de Boulogne suddenly flashed into a splendid glare of white. All this was for him—and all this park, these trees and shrubs trimmed wonderfully into domes and squares and pyramids, these flowers and terraces and vistas, these groups of people like fanciful figures in a painting filling in the dim distances. A youth and a pretty maiden danced round and round; two priests, sober-stepping, paced by; and Pierre Petibon lay back on the grass and, half hidden by a clump of bushes, looked up at the sky, and thought and dreamed.
Possibly he fell asleep—then suddenly he half started up as he heard an affrighted little cry close beside him, and the swish of a gown and the soft patter of hurrying feet.
"I thought that—he—his red trousers—he—was a big bunch of geraniums!"
The words came in a fluttered voice of marvellous sweetness, and he saw that the girl herself was sweeter than the voice. He lay down again, but now with his head on his arm, and watched the fluttered girl subside into tranquillity. She was one of a party of a score or so, all garbed alike in blouselike gowns of soft hue, and they were convoyed by a nun, whose white cap, turned back at the sides in queer square bends, stretched far forward over her gentle face. The girls paced slowly on together, and their young voices rose in a lilting carol; and then they halted, at a spot where the sunlight slanted down through the massed foliage and checkered the patch of grass with light and shade.
And Pierre Petibon felt anew a sense of pleasure in the fact that the park of St. Cloud was all for him; never before had he seen anything so sweet within its borders; and buoyed by his subconscious feeling of possession, he walked gravely to the party and spoke respectfully to the dark-gowned Sister; and she, a little fluttered, but reassured by the honest earnestness of the soldier's eyes, replied softly, and he sat down on the grass at her feet and silently looked at the graceful girls. And Yvonne was by far the most graceful of all; but Pierre's grave eyes could not draw her own. She blushed, and, all demureness, would not look at the red-trousered soldier, though her companions slyly rallied her about the patch of geraniums that she had found.
The girls were from a school in Paris, and had been sent to St. Cloud for a summer's outing; and Pierre, walking by the Sister's side, followed the maidens to their home, near the park, and stood, cap in hand, as they passed through a mossy gate in a great stone wall, ivy-covered and topped with tile. There was no thought of intrusiveness, of effrontery; Yvonne had come to him as one of the treasures of St. Cloud.
And the next time that he had leave of absence he walked boldly to the entrance of the house, and he rang the bell, and in a brave voice he said that he would see the Sister, and to her he bluntly said that he loved Yvonne. The Sister smiled—a queer and sober little smile, which had in it somewhat of amusement, and somewhat of surprise, and somewhat of sympathy with human love. And, indeed, she had once thought of romance for herself. . . .
In short, so well did Pierre acquit himself, and so well was he vouched for by the good people of the town, that he and Yvonne were allowed to speak with each other. "We never refuse to consider good opportunities for the marriage of the girls under our charge," said the Sister, simply. "All are orphans, and there is only a little dot for each—interest from a special fund left by the rich lady who founded the school."
And once in a while, after that, Pierre was allowed to visit Yvonne, who, very sweet and lovable, talked shyly with him, while the gentle Sister sat near by, knitting silently and thinking of the past; and once in a while Pierre joined the convoyed girls as they paced through the woody aisles, and by an unspoken consent the two were allowed to walk and to talk together, a little apart.
Then it was that Lieutenant Henri Lebrun came, and outside of the bar racks he and Pierre were at first good friends, and the two went, arm in arm, to see Yvonne, and Henri gayly told him that he had won the prettiest girl in France. "But no pretty girl can catch me unless she is rich," Henri added; whereat Pierre felt grievously hurt, and as if the foundation of friendship were slipping away.
It was not long before St. Cloud, having commented in pleased gossip on Pierre's love-affair, found new food for talk. For a distant relative, who had been for years in Canada, and who had been lost sight of by Yvonne's family, died, leaving her a fortune; whereupon the Superior of the school wrote to the Sister at St. Cloud, directing her to tell Monsieur Petibon that, no formal betrothal having taken place, there must now, in justice to Yvonne, and in consideration of her altered position, be more care in selecting a husband; that this need not be looked upon as a final dismissal of the young soldier, Monsieur Petibon, but must be taken as a warning not to cherish hopes. The townspeople commiserated with each other over the sudden blow which had come upon their favorite; and the soldiers at the barracks, who liked Pierre as a manly and brave young fellow, felt sympathy for him. And now the soft-voiced Sister would sometimes lead her troop slowly along the road which looks down into the barracks-yard, and sometimes she would let the girls lean over the stone wall and watch the battalions below go through their drill.
And Lieutenant Lebrun, at such times, loved to face toward the wall and to display his fine voice and fine uniform—and Yvonne noticed that he began to speak sharply to Pierre Petibon, to find loud fault with him, to gibe at him in words of sharp command; and the other girls, Yvonne's companions, were indignant, for they saw no fault in Pierre, who through his romance with Yvonne had become the hero of the school; but whether or not Yvonne herself was angered none could tell, for she watched the scenes with an inscrutable face. And once in a while, when after some taunting word to Pierre, to which, as a private in the ranks, he could not reply, Lieutenant Lebrun would smile and look up triumphantly at Yvonne, far above him, leaning over the long stone wall. And some who watched Pierre's face saw signs of gusty passion now and then sweep over it in spite of his self-control, and they felt that evil might come of it all; that Lieutenant Lebrun was rousing a man who, in spite of his usual good temper, was capable of some desperate and gusty deed. And once Lebrun for a moment trembled as he caught a look of dour fierceness fixed full upon him.
Soon it began to be known that Lebrun himself was an ardent suitor for Yvonne; it was not long before it was generally believed, in the town and in the barracks, that her churchly guardians and the girl herself had agreed to accept him; and Pierre Petibon, wild with disappointment, with love, could obtain no definite word. He saw Yvonne once, but the girl, having been thus instructed, answered perfunctorily, dryly, without apparent emotion, and Pierre went baffled away.
And one day, in the drill-yard, with Yvonne looking down from the wall, high above, Lieutenant Lebrun was so intolerably insolent that Pierre Petibon's face grew dark and fierce.
Another insolent word. And Pierre sprang forward, hurled himself at Lebrun, dashed the sword from his hand,—and then the mist passed away from before his eyes, and he checked himself, and stood erect and still. In an instant he was seized, but his first impulse of violence had passed with the moment in which he indulged it. Lebrun picked up his sword, but something in the faces of the men about him, something in what he instinctively knew would place him best in the eyes of Yvonne, made him refrain from striking the helpless prisoner, who was instantly hurried away.
And now Lebrun showed that he could be both politic and magnanimous. Pierre was brought before a court martial, but Lebrun quietly let it be known that he would much prefer to have the witnesses of the attack make as little of it as possible, and to the court he himself spoke lightly of it. It was merely a freakish trick of an old friend and school-mate, he said—he knew that Pierre Petibon had meant no harm; he (Lebrun) was expecting to be married shortly, and both he and his bride to be, with whom Private Petibon had a humble acquaintance, would be pleased if the court should let the soldier go free.
The officers of the court thereupon deliberated, and in place of the heavy punishment that had been contemplated, they ordered that Private Petibon be transferred to a post in Algeria till the end of his term of service.
In the streets and the gardens and the shops of St. Cloud, and where the people gather about the fountain that, half-way up the hill, blocks the narrow, twisting Rue Royale, the story was told and retold.
When Pierre's term of service was over he returned to St. Cloud, and was told that Lebrun was with the garrison at Vincennes, and that the Lieutenant and Yvonne—who had not been in St. Cloud since her return to the Paris school shortly after the affray in the barracks-yard—were undoubtedly to be married within a short time.
He went to Boulogne, determined to leave the country forever. His father had recently died, and had left him a little money. But at Boulogne he hesitated. He obtained a position with a wealthy man, who put opportunities in his way. When the great steamers for America paused there and then went steadily on, and when the crowded packet-boats for the English coast steamed out of the harbor, he felt anew the desire to put the sea between him and the place where he had been so unhappy; but ever the love of France, and ever the magnet spell of Yvonne's presence, even though she was another's, held him upon French soil.
He loved to talk of St. Cloud—of its park, its trees and its loveliness, its narrow streets, the Parisians who flocked to it, the host of wedding parties; and one day his employer said
"Pierre, go back to St. Cloud. You love it, and will be successful there. Open another place. Call it the Pavillon Petibon. I will give you the capital to start it, and you shall be part owner."
And thus it was that Pierre Petibon returned to St. Cloud. Thus it came about that in the tiny gardens built impossibly on the steep hillsides, at the windows overlooking the narrow streets or opening toward distant views, and in the little shops where the people gathered for petty barter and endless gossip, the fact was eagerly discussed. The little old town was aglow with communicable news. And was it not news, indeed! Pierre Petibon had returned—had returned successful—with money!
The Pavillon Petibon quickly became famous and rivalled the Pavillon Bleu. Wedding parties flocked to it in the afternoons, and in the evenings it was soon a favorite resort, for Parisians loved to come there and sit on its balconies and listen to the soft-stringed music and look out over the Seine. And Pierre Petibon was honored and loved by the little town.
And one brilliant day in June there were more wedding parties than had ever before come on any day in the history of St. Cloud. The open place and the broad avenue sloping up from it past the barracks were thick with carriages, and Pierre Petibon watched with pride as party after party were ushered in. The orchestra played with an enthusiasm which left them little time to circulate among the guests for the customary. Round and round, with short and mincing steps, never reversing, the dancers waltzed. At the tables others ate and drank in gay happiness. The gold-laced chasseurs proudly received one company after another, and ceremoniously led them to chairs and settees. The chatter of parties coming and parties going, of general talk and laughter and gayety, was pleasant to hear; but to Pierre Petibon there came, with the pleasure and with the pride, a sense of sorrow and of loss.
He walked to the entrance of the pavillon. He looked at the crowded street, at the coachmen and the horses decked with wedding-favors, at the bridal carriages lined with white, and a desolate feeling came over him. Never for him were there to be wedding-favors and bride. And the musicians, inside of the pavillon, struck into a dreamy waltz, which dimmed his eyes, for it told of his dreams of the past and of Yvonne.
Another party! And they threw confetti from their carriages, and a throng of spectators surrounded them, and chasseurs from the different establishments ran to greet and win them, and a gold-capped chasseur from the Pavillon Petibon led them on in triumph.
Pierre drew back a little as the leading carriage came up; and from it first descended, splendidly uniformed, Lieutenant Lebrun—and then Yvonne! And gayly laughing, and amid shouts of glee and the waving of wedding-favors, the delicately gowned women and the black-garbed men and the glittering Lieutenant made their way into the hall through the little crowd that had gathered at the door.
"This is my wedding-day!" cried Lebrun to old neighbors that he knew.
Yvonne—Yvonne and St. Cloud!—Yvonne and Lebrun! And so it was thus that Fate had decreed the blow should fall. Yvonne and Lebrun! Not married long ago, as Pierre had thought, but only to-day—this very day. And ever the waltz went dreamily, sweetly, lovingly on.
Pierre Petibon walked with outward composure into the hall, but his heart was swiftly beating, and in his eyes were signs of fierce and gusty passion. Yvonne and Lebrun were dancing, and there was a murmur of applause, so charming and beautiful was she, gowned in white, and so brave to look upon was the man beside her.
The music stopped, and Lebrun proudly led Yvonne to a seat. And then, still outwardly calm, but with a look in his eyes such as had been there on the day of the scene in the barracks-yard, Pierre Petibon crossed the room and stood at Yvonne's side.
With a little cry of surprise, she looked up at him, and her face grew very pale. He looked at none but her. "It is my dance, Yvonne," he said, and with out a word she arose, and the music again began—a waltz more sweet, more dreamy, more full of love than before; and Pierre Petibon for the first time in his life held in his arms the woman that he worshipped.
"I love you, I love you," he said, and the music wailed and sang. "I love you, I love you; I have hungered for you, thirsted for you, longed for you. Yvonne, Yvonne, I love you!"
The music was speaking to their hearts. "Yvonne, Yvonne, come with me!" His eyes looked far down into hers in a compelling eagerness, and his words came fierce and warm, and she murmured, "Pierre, Pierre, I will go with you."
They whirled near the entranceway—he so tall and handsome, and she so white and dainty and sweet—and in a moment they were out-of-doors. None heeded them, for Lebrun was already dancing with another, and it appeared merely as if Pierre and Yvonne had stepped outside for cooler air.
"Into this carriage;" and Yvonne, in a great wonder at this metamorphosed lover, who had so unexpectedly appeared and taken possession of her, unquestioningly obeyed.
"Do you love me, Yvonne?" he said. "Do you love me?" And, "I have always loved you, Pierre," she simply replied.
"To the upper station," said Pierre to the driver; "and quick!" He knew that a train was almost due. "We will go to America, Yvonne—anywhere—to the end of the world!"
"Yes," she said; "if you want me to, we shall go to the end of the world." It was pleasant to be guided by this masterful man. Then, "Pierre," she said, after a little pause, as the horses slowed, setting themselves at the steep hill—"Pierre—do we need to—"
He sharply interrupted her, but the sharpness was for himself and not for her. He was already beginning to fear that he was acting an unmanly part, that he was leading her into ultimate misery. "Are you sorry, Yvonne?" And he added, but almost as if speaking to himself: "It is not too late—it is not yet too late." The gust of passion had gone, and all that remained was deep and humble love. He stirred wearily, and spoke as if awaking from a dream. "It is not too late, Yvonne. We had better go back."
Bewildered thus to be dismissed, she burned with mortified amazement, and with a little shiver drew away from him.
"I love you, Yvonne, but I must not— Oh, Yvonne, decide for me—for us! If you had not married Lebrun—if this were yesterday and not to-day—if you were free—if—"
He boggled his words, and then, with an effort, spoke with more of steadiness. "I have been yielding to my selfishness, Yvonne; yielding to a selfish love. It was a mistake—"
He looked away from her to avoid the look that she bent upon him. He moved restlessly, and dared not even glance at her. "Yvonne, Yvonne, I love you so," he murmured, but not a word did she say in reply.
In a few moments she opened the carriage door. "We wish to return," she said, composedly. And in silence the two were driven back.
At the Pavillon Petibon the carriage stopped, and the door was swung wide by an eager chasseur.
Pierre cast one hopeless look at Yvonne, and, bewildered, saw that her eyes were brimming with fun.
"Yvonne!" he gasped.
"This is the wedding-day of Monsieur Lebrun, and I am the bridesmaid, and promised him the first dance," she said, with the demureness that he so well knew. She laughed merrily, so droll was the face of Pierre Petibon, with traces of disappointed passion still upon it, mingled with blank amazement at this incomprehensible turn. "Lieutenant Lebrun learned long ago that it was not for him I cared, and so, like a sensible man, he did not mope, but found consolation elsewhere. And if you will take that look of bewilderment from your face, monsieur,"—she laughed again, but checked herself demurely,—"and if you will look a little more as if you would like it, you may have the next dance—and without going to the end of the world, monsieur!"